Embattled Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s history of good governance, as well as his image as an efficient and honest premier, is again being overshadowed by questions of corruption.
Singh came in for heavy criticism after appointing Polayil Joseph Thomas as Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) late last year. Opposition parties were quick to point to the fact that Thomas was embroiled in a legal case tied to kickback allegations dating back to 1992, when he was Food secretary for the state of Kerala.
The Vigilance Commission is an autonomous body of the Indian government charged with monitoring all central government vigilance activities and addressing corruption at the government level. The importance of having a squeaky clean head is therefore clear.
The Supreme Court eventually ruled that Thomas’ appointment to the Commission was illegal, prompting him to step down earlier this month. After the top court’s verdict, Singh admitted he had made an ‘error of judgement’ with his selection, but the opposition is determined not to let go of the issue.
The main opposition Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is keen to destroy the image of Singh and the United Progressive Alliance government he leads, a task made easier by the numerous corruption allegations that have been levelled against the government and its ministers recently.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s activism over corruption claims has further demoralized the government. The money laundering case against Hasan Ali, who is supposed to be hiding billions of dollars in a secret bank account in Switzerland, is just one example of the way the court is making life difficult for the government. It was, after all, at the direction of the court that Ali was arrested.
Yet although the government has taken some concrete steps against those found guilty of corruption, the image among much of the public is that of a government that's reluctant to vigorously pursue corruption cases. And when perception starts defining politics, it becomes increasingly difficult for the ruling party to do the right thing.
With this in mind, the Congress leadership should abandon its silence over corruption, especially when it’s clear there’s such widespread public frustration. Bold political action would help rejuvenate not only party morale, but also that of the general public. And the party could also do more to help itself by properly considering the background of those it plans to appoint to senior positions.
The opposition hopes that its campaign against corruption will yield results in the 2014 general elections. But if that’s going to happen, the BJP will first need to put its own house in order. For example, the BJP leads the governments in Karnataka and Uttarakhand, both of which are facing major corruption allegations. In addition, the BJP has a lot to answer for over the issue of Hindutva terror.
All this means that Indians are left with an unappetizing choice—a government under siege or an opposition that lacks any new ideas.